Reaching for the real: St Augustine and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

I just gave a lecture about St Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (I assigned RPH Green’s translation, On Christian Teaching) on Monday, and, since that text has been cited as the place where Augustine invents semiotics, semiotics has been on my mind a bit. And a couple of weeks ago, when choosing my next piece of fiction to read, I decided to finally crack open my copy of Umberto Eco’s 2004 novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

First, semiotics is the study of signs and symbols (but not, I hasten to add, the domain of “symbologists”, whether from Harvard or elsewhere). So, in De Doctrina, Augustine talks about how there are signs (signa) and things (res). All signa happen to be res, but not all res are signa. A signum is something that represents to us a res. Some are natural, such as where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire, and others are human inventions, such as language. The signa of language are sound events representing res, and these disappear as soon as they come into existence (which makes one think of the later books of Confessions with their discussion of time and memory, written not long after these books of De Doctrina). Written words consist of physical, written signs that represent the res that are the spoken signs that represent the res of the rest of the world.

Ultimately, though, Augustine does see all the res we encounter as signa, and that to which they point is the res that is God (but is God a res? [wonders Augustine] Can we really say that? God is ultimately unspeakable, after all…). As we seek ourselves or the great transcendent God, we find that what we seek is almost uncatchable, ungraspable (consider the discussion of the interior self as a vast cavern in Confessions 10).

This, of course, is something that Basil of Caesarea had thought upon in the 360s and 370s, arguing that we think we can know the essence (ousia) of God, when we cannot even know the ousia of other creatures but only their activities (energeiai). In a dangerous move, I wonder if it’s not the case that our energeiai, like those of God, are not, as far as others are concerned, ultimately signa that represent the irreducible res that is each self.

Anyway, in Confessions in various ways, St Augustine engages in a great seeking for himself, found only when he finds the incarnate God and joins the community centred around Him. And along the way, we enter the great mind palace of the memory — itself, to transpose terms from De Doctrina, filled with signa representing various res in which we have been involved throughout our lives.

Can we ever have an unmediated encounter with a res? Or will we always have mediating signa that stand as filters between ourselves and reality? Even between ourselves and ourselves?

There is an argument in semiotics that such is the case.

And thinking these things, I sat down to read some more of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana last night. This novel is about a man called Yambo who has lost his personal memories, but he does remember most of the books he has read. The novel thus begins with a barrage of intertexts about fog — a recurring theme both in the book and in Yambo’s life. Throughout the rest of the book there will be allusions interwoven into the text as well as great quoted chunks of intertext and images interspersed as Yambo seeks to discover the self he has lost with his memories.

Yambo has only the filter left.

The self composed of memories and experiences on the other side of the filter is gone.

Elsewhere in Eco’s work, the idea of reality being mediated by the signa we have mapped into our minds and hearts surfaces. In Foucault’s Pendulum, for example, the characters’ entire existence is essentially mediated by literature, to such an extent that a simple drive in the Italian countryside is not a direct encounter with nature and beauty but, rather, with literature about the countryside as it is called forth from memory unbidden.

I recall the day I thought, “My sons lives are a web of intertextuality,” as the elder boy at two-and-a-half stood naked with a plastic tub on his head and said, “Do you like my hat?” Maybe I’m the one caught in the web, as I immediately thought of Go, Dog! Go! by P D Eastman. But their lives have certainly blossomed forth into a variety of allusions to and quotations from their books.

I can’t think of any of them right now — but my intertexts have certainly become theirs, as those nights with them running up and down the hall, the elder boy yelling, “I’m Batman! I’m not wearing hockey pants!” over and over again.

I certainly can’t hear, “Do you like my hat?” without either, “I do! I do like that party hat!” or, “No I do not.” I can’t hear, “Someone’s banging on a drum,” without saying, “Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum,” in response. How many times at the end of fun for the day have I said, “Today was fun but now it’s done, tomorrow is another one”?

I can’t even hear someone say a two-syllable word with emphasis on the first syllable and a lengthened second syllable without my mind flipping a White Christmas switch, “Pine Tree! Coming in to Pine Tree!”

This entrapment in a web of intertextuality, this inescapable mediatedness of reality, has so many repercussions I don’t know where to go from here. I mean, at some point, we have learned all the things we know, even things we don’t think about having learnt — how to open a doorknob, what a doorknob is, in fact. And so we have this filter of language hovering between us and the door, without which we would possibly have trouble managing our existence.

But there must be a way to truly encounter the things, the res, of reality, to truly meet with the door and the doorknob.


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